Gary Taubes: Bad Calories, or Bad Research?

The 1980's and 90's were the decades of fat-phobia. Dietary fat was making us fat, said the experts. Thus, we were supposed cut the fat out of our diet. BOOM! Enter an explosion of low-fat and no-fat foods.

Yet, despite reducing the fat in our diets, our society continued to get fatter.

So, in the late 90's and into this decade, things changed.  We went from being fat-phobic, to carb-phobic.  Publication of books such as Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution and Michael Eades's Protein Power told us it was the carbs that were making us fat.  If you wanted to drop the weight, you needed to drop the carbs.

Gary Taubes expanded on this thesis with the publication of his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories.

 

Taubes asserted that America wasn't getting fatter because we were eating too much fat, or because we were eating too many calories and exercising too little.  We were getting fatter because we were eating too many carbohydrates.  The carbohydrates were causing us to accumulate fat, which was then driving us to eat too much and exercise too little.

Taubes's book is an impressive, 600+ page book that is well-referenced.  It flows like a the story of a journalist (in which Taubes has a graduate degree).  It tells quite a good story.

However, good stories are not always accurate, nor are they complete.  The book gets particularly shaky when Taubes tackles the problem of obesity.  Unfortunately, there has been little in the way of thorough critiques of his book.  George Bray published a critique of the book in Obesity Reviews; however, it is difficult to thoroughly critique a 600+ page book in such a small amount of space.

A close examination of the latter half of Taubes's book reveals logical fallacies, erroneous assumptions, misquotations of research, and an absence of scientific data that does not fit with his story about obesity and his hypothesized cause.  In fact, a general theme is the use of very old scientific data, despite the fact that newer data of a higher quality is available.

This blog post represents the beginning of a series of posts in which I will thoroughly critique the book, chapter by chapter, beginning with Chapter 14 entitled The Mythology of Obesity.  I am not sure how regularly I will make these posts, as I do not want my website to become one big critique of Taubes's book.  However, I do think a thorough critique is necessary.

Of course, I already sense a bunch of strawmen coming my way, including accusations that I am somehow against low-carbohydrate diets.  I am not.  In fact, I have attended the Nutrition & Metabolism Society conference (an organization that is heavily interested in low carbohydrate diets), been a reviewer for their journal, and have either met or know high-profile scientists in the low-carbohydrate arena, including Eric Westman, Marie Vernon, Richard Feinman, Jeff Volek, and others.  I have also published research on low-carbohydrate diets myself.  Low-carbohydrate diets are certainly an effective strategy for some people intending to lose weight...but they are not the only strategy, nor are they the best strategy for everyone.  And they do not work for the reasons that some people think they work. 

What I am against is an incomplete presentation of scientific data, which can be misleading and can result in erroneous conclusions.  I consider the latter half of Taubes's book to be an incomplete, highly selective presentation of the data, and I intend to provide a more complete picture here.

Stay tuned for future posts regarding this topic...

22 Responses to “Gary Taubes: Bad Calories, or Bad Research?

  • James,

    I found your blog through Alan and Lyle’s sites, and I’m glad that I did. As a recovering “low carb” fanatic, who was once accused of being a priest of the church of St. Dr. Atkins, I’ve been waiting for someone with your background to thoroughly review Taubes’s book, which I read cover to cover the same week it hit bookstores. Just from reading Greg Ellis, Anthony Colpo, Jamie Hale, Alan, and Lyle, I knew that there was something wrong with the dated sources that Taubes uses. I may not be a nutritional scientist, but I do have an advanced degree and can tell when someone uses dated research to further their “pet theory”, and I think that’s exactly what happened in GCBC, which I find very ironic since the LC community is quick to point out how Ancel Keys cherry picked data to support his “lipid hypothesis” … go figure. Anyway, I’m really looking forward to your series of posts; however, please be prepared for the backlash that’s pretty much guaranteed to happen in the comment section my friend 😉

    • Thanks, Muata. I just posted my first review of Chapter 14 here. I am bracing myself for the backlash, but a thorough review of this book is needed. I feel people need to see all of the evidence and information that Taubes leaves out of his book.

      Good observation about Ancel Keys, by the way. I didn’t think of that but you’re completely right. Of course, people are usually blind to their own hypocrisy.

    • Matt Crandall
      8 years ago

      James,

      I found your blog through Alan and Lyle’s sites, and I’m glad that I did.As a recovering “low carb” fanatic, who was once accused of being a priest of the church of St. Dr. Atkins, I’ve been waiting for someone with your background to thoroughly review Taubes’s book, which I read cover to cover the same week it hit bookstores.Just from reading Greg Ellis, Anthony Colpo, Jamie Hale, Alan, and Lyle, I knew that there was something wrong with the dated sources that Taubes uses.I may not be a nutritional scientist, but I do have an advanced degree and can tell when someone uses dated research to further their “pet theory”, and I think that’s exactly what happened in GCBC, which I find very ironic since the LC community is quick to point out how Ancel Keys cherry picked data to support his “lipid hypothesis” … go figure.Anyway, I’m really looking forward to your series of posts; however, please be prepared for the backlash that’s pretty much guaranteed to happen in the comment section my friend

      Dated research, very true. Of course, he did that because the research was good and correct. The human body has not changed. And there has been research since that upholds his claims. Me… just my own research. I have lost 74 pounds in 7 months, no longer suffer from gout (Paleo, high fat), no longer suffer from insomnia, blood sugar is back to healthy, no longer need blood pressure medicine, and I feel amazing.

      • p buscemi
        8 years ago

        Dated research, very true.Of course, he did that because the research was good and correct.The human body has not changed.And there has been research since that upholds his claims.Me… just my own research.I have lost 74 pounds in 7 months, no longer suffer from gout (Paleo, high fat), no longer suffer from insomnia, blood sugar is back to healthy, no longer need blood pressure medicine, and I feel amazing.

        Dated research, very true.Of course, he did that because the research was good and correct.The human body has not changed.And there has been research since that upholds his claims.Me… just my own research.I have lost 74 pounds in 7 months, no longer suffer from gout (Paleo, high fat), no longer suffer from insomnia, blood sugar is back to healthy, no longer need blood pressure medicine, and I feel amazing.

        Dated research, very true.Of course, he did that because the research was good and correct.The human body has not changed.And there has been research since that upholds his claims.Me… just my own research.I have lost 74 pounds in 7 months, no longer suffer from gout (Paleo, high fat), no longer suffer from insomnia, blood sugar is back to healthy, no longer need blood pressure medicine, and I feel amazing.

        Dated research, very true.Of course, he did that because the research was good and correct.The human body has not changed.And there has been research since that upholds his claims.Me… just my own research.I have lost 74 pounds in 7 months, no longer suffer from gout (Paleo, high fat), no longer suffer from insomnia, blood sugar is back to healthy, no longer need blood pressure medicine, and I feel amazing.

        Dated research, very true.Of course, he did that because the research was good and correct.The human body has not changed.And there has been research since that upholds his claims.Me… just my own research.I have lost 74 pounds in 7 months, no longer suffer from gout (Paleo, high fat), no longer suffer from insomnia, blood sugar is back to healthy, no longer need blood pressure medicine, and I feel amazing.

        Dated research, very true.Of course, he did that because the research was good and correct.The human body has not changed.And there has been research since that upholds his claims.Me… just my own research.I have lost 74 pounds in 7 months, no longer suffer from gout (Paleo, high fat), no longer suffer from insomnia, blood sugar is back to healthy, no longer need blood pressure medicine, and I feel amazing.

    • PLEEEZ! Let’s talk science. Why do we gain wheigt? We gain wheigt because our fat tissue accumulates too much fat. What regulates fat tissue is the hormone insulin. We secrete insulin in response to the carbohydrates we take into our bodies there is no other reason to secrete insulin! It is so simple that I believe even Dr. Ellis can understand it he may not want to agree with it but he does understand it.Ask any diabetic on insulin.

      • PLEEEZ! Let’s talk science

        Before we talk science, I suggest you do some more reading of science first. And I don’t mean pop-culture junk science like that of Taubes. I mean real science…from studies, physiological textbooks, etc.

        Why do we gain wheigt? We gain wheigt because our fat tissue accumulates too much fat.

        Actually we gain weight when we accumulate all types of tissue, not just fat. Obesity is an accumulation of both fat and lean mass, not just fat mass.

        What regulates fat tissue is the hormone insulin.

        Insulin is only one of many, many hormones and other factors that regulate fat tissue.

        We secrete insulin in response to the carbohydrates we take into our bodies there is no other reason to secrete insulin!

        We secrete insulin in response to protein ingestion as well. In fact, dairy protein causes greater insulin secretion than many carbohydrates. I suggest you read this.

        It is so simple

        Actually it’s not simple at all.

        Ask any diabetic on insulin.

        I suggest you read this.

  • p buscemi
    8 years ago

    Matt, just what diet are you on ? low fat, low carb, none ?
    regards
    pb

  • ummm what the heck. this help me none and who cares about anything in this article?!?!?

  • I am now not certain where you’re getting your information, however great topic. I needs to spend a while finding out much more or understanding more. Thank you for wonderful information I used to be searching for this information for my mission.

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